Subsidiarity & Religious Psychology

William James in his work on the psychology of religion, characterizes two types of religious psychology that he observes in the religious experience of humanity. One he calls the healthy minded, morally strong type. A good example is Zen Buddhism which emphasizes self-help and the sufficiency of reason and practice in religious formation. Charismatic leaders play only an ancillary role in facilitating religious development in followers which is neither necessary mor sufficient to their success. Eventually, religious followed should be able to reconstruct the path to religious success for themselves.

The other type is what Janes calls the sick-souled spiritually dependent type. A good example is the Shin schools of Buddhism where the supplicant admits that he is unable to make sufficient progress on his own and must rely on surrogate labors of others. Religious figured are indispensable for their objective work on behalf of others. Fruits of such labor cannot be discovered by reason alone but require proclamation and tradition in the form of legends technique will not obtain this help which can only be acknowledged, requested, and relied on.

In Christianity, the same is observed. Focusing on Western Christianity, believers struggle to avoid two extremes, Pelagianism or autosoterism, in which God’s role is only to acknowledge moral perfection when it is achieved by the striving of the saint and Christ’s work on the cross is only an example of morality to us. The other extreme is theologism the view that God is the sole cause of all that happens in creation and redemption such that secondary causes are mere illusions.

Within those boundaries, the church in the west has been divided into the Roman Catholic and the Protestant branches. The first seems to emphasize moral strength more. Salvation as justification depends on your works being sufficiently worthy to justly earn heaven. Both the work of Christ and other forms of grace are necessary for success but they are all ancillary to this result. The tradition also gives greater scope to natural reason for moral guidance as well as institutional support through the catholic church hierarchy.

The Augustinian-Jansenist-Protestant branch of western theology reflects the spiritual dependence theme. Salvation is all of grace even to the point of being chosen before time for salvation independently of our own existence. The believer is absolutely dependent on God for salvation. He is not just sick but dead in his guilt and sin and cannot save or seek salvation of himself. In Protestantism, Christ is not merely an example nor even just ancillary to salvation but rather is the complete and sufficient achievement of that salvation for believers. This is known by special revelation only which while compatible with objective morality relies on it primarily to expose the absolute need for grace. This has tended to make the believer immediately present in her own subjectivity before God and has deemphasized the institutional church.

It seems that healthy minded religion and sick souled religion are supposed to be incompatible. Yet either one if not taken to extremes us something that is prima facie good in it’s own right. Also each is supported by it’s own primary intuition: health mindedness by the intuition of personal moral responsibility and the sick-souled by the intuition of absolute dependence. Both of which is a part of out intuition of God as sovereign and as mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

In spite of these differences, Protestants and Catholics have discovered a very important area if common ground emerging from their respective traditions. From the Protestant side it’s called “sphere sovereignty”. From the Catholic side, it’s called “Subsidiarity”. Both terms highlight that there are different spheres of responsibility that a person may act it. The first highlights them as distinct jurisdictions and the second their ordering relations.

An example is the relation between the family and the state. According to Subsidiarity, the two spheres are distinct in that they have specific responsibilities that are primarily theirs. Yet each has on obligation to assure the ends of the other. So for example, the mission of the family is to see to the being and well-being of it’s members. This includes their health but also the development of their potential and character. However, the state sees to the security of it’s citizens and their prosperity and posterity. It thus recognizes that developing character in it’s citizen’s is a public good. But it also sees that developing character is principally the purpose of the family. So the state sees to it’s proper public good by facilitating the family in it’s own pursuit in it’s own mission and not by doing the family’s job for it (unless the family has become so broken down that it cannot do it’s job). Citizens with good character are a public good but the role of the state is subsidiary to the role of the family.

Now I suggest that Subsidiarity may help us to reconcile the the healthy minded and sick souled sides of western Christianity and thus may shed s useful light on some of the plights of Western Christianity today.

One if the great concerns of Protestantism is it’s apparent co-belligerency with early modern thought in taking the subjective turn. But a better way of thinking about this is to recognize that it’s good for theism to see that there are many ways something could be, one if which is to be subjectively. What the early modern period discovered or re-discovered is the sphere of the individual, that alongside the social spheres of responsibility there is also for each person the sphere of the self that she is accountable for. So if we see that we can see that the priorities of religion of the sick souled are the priorities of religion in the sphere of the individual sphere. On the other hand, the priorities of the religion of the healthy minded are the priorities of religion in the social spheres, beginning with the family. Finally, the priorities of religion per se or per the religious object are the priorities of the sphere of the religious institution, the church, temple, shrine, or mosque.

The western church’s primary responsibility is orthodoxology, the right speaking of God in proclamation and worship. But this also includes holding the spiritual and moral well-being of it’s members as individuals and as a community since repentance is the appropriate response to the evangel. But the church’s role is secondary to the family in cultivating the pedagogy of moral and compassionate becoming that makes for community. The real know-how and direct supervision for that belongs to parents and peers. But such wisdom will be a natural wisdom common to all families with a presumption of virtue and prudence. All this is wholly appropriate to cultivating moral strength. Here is the grist that helps us understand the theology of sanctification, mortification, and divine chastening.

But it also is an aim of the church to see to the salvation of souls. This takes up the soul’s own responsibility for her own happiness and her intimate knowledge of fallenness, sinfulness, and irreconciliation with God. The church guides with Christian direction but this is ancillary to the soul’s own response to grace. This can only be appropriate to the soul based on self-awareness even though this is sabotaged by self-deception. The awareness of one’s own helplessness appropriately calls for dependence. The soul may balk at this because of uncertainty created by worries that melancholia is misleading them but that is yet another feature that makes total dependence rational. But the church seeks to direct the individual to the word of God as to the truth apart from all self-deception. But the soul must choose to apply that truth to itself. And here we have the whole forensic and relational theology of graces like substitution, justification, assurance of salvation and so on.

So the consistency of healthy mindedness and sick souledness is consistent because these modes of the psychology of religion are true relative to a sphere. The fact that individuals are placed immediately before the presence of God in the individual sphere of concern for salvation is consistent with the fact that communities as communities are directly present to God according to the other social spheres and their specific economies, including the church.

Of course, this solution does not automatically dictate how specific doctrinal conflicts between branches of the church should be worked out. But it should take off the table objections to doctrines that are based on consequentialist arguments such as that this or that doctrine leads to either rugged individualism or group think.

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